This week’s film session with a former Division I football coach presented some problems. Namely that Idaho State was easily the worst team to visit Memorial Stadium in recent memory. Thus, looking at the film wasn’t nearly as illustrative as it usually is. Most of what Nebraska ran worked, and what didn’t work typically didn’t matter — superior athleticism took over.
So rather than look at that, our time — both mine and yours — seems better spent moving straight into Wisconsin. Nebraska enters Saturday’s game as a double-digit favorite but watching the Badgers against UTEP last week made that seem like a slightly riskier proposition. Even without star running back Montee Ball — who could miss the Nebraska game as well — Wisconsin looked to be figuring somethings out offensively. On defense, the Badgers bring an experienced and disciplined unit that could give Nebraska more trouble than I initially thought.
Below are some very handsome highlights from that UTEP game in case you missed it. They’re less illustrative of specific plays than I would like but that’s ok as we’ll spend most of the time focusing on schemes and players.
After failing to top 20 points or 250 total yards in either of its two previous games, the Badgers exploded (relatively speaking) for 423 yards and 37 points last week against the Miners. The offense is likely what you remember from last year’s trip to Madiosn: It’s a pro-style set most often with two tight ends and a single back. Not surprisingly given the firing of the Badgers’ offensive line coach two games into the season, Wisconsin is still a work in progress up front. The Badgers had 213 yards rushing against UTEP and almost none of that came between the tackles.
Part of that is by design. Wisconsin put a man in motion, typically a running back split out as a slot receiver, on jet sweep action a lot last week. Melvin Gordon (No. 25) was that guy on Saturday and ran for 112 yards on eight carries. (See him score on this very play at 2:30 mark of the video above.) It’s not necessarily about deception — though the Badgers did fake out of it frequently — it’s about movement. Wisconsin ran that jet sweep action a ton in the second half and Nebraska will have to account for it each and every time.
The Badgers passing game is significantly different from what Nebraska has faced thus far this season. Wisconsin ran pure drop-back passing plays only a handful of times last week. Everything else involved some sort of play action. The Badgers are quite fond of their waggle/bootleg pass out of a two tight end set where the quarterback fakes a handoff and rolls out (almost always to the right) where he has a receiver running a stick or an out route and the tight ends coming across the field. When Wisconsin does go deep, it’s usually to Jared Abbrederis (No. 4). Wisconsin has just four completions of 25 yards or more — Nebraska has 12 — and all four have come courtesy of Abbrederis. On one of those plays last week — seen at the 1:20 mark above — the UTEP cornerback simply fell down.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave (No. 2) took over for Danny O’Brien at halftime three weeks ago and is very much in the game manager mold. Wisconsin’s pro-style approach could neutralize two of Nebraska’s best threats defensively simply by keeping them off the field. Nebraska will play three linebackers for the first time this season, meaning nickel back Ciante Evans will likely have to work some at corner to see the field as much as he has so far this season. The lack of drop-back passes could also limit defensive end Eric Martin, as pure a pass rusher as the Huskers have right now.
Two things jump out at you when watching the Wisconsin defense on film: 1) They’re extremely well coached and disciplined, and 2) The linebacking corps is, as offensive coordinator Tim Beck said on Monday, as good as Nebraska will see this year.
The Badgers play a traditional 4-3 scheme which gives its linebackers plenty of opportunities to wreak havoc. Senior Mike Taylor (No. 53) and juniors Chris Borland (No. 44) and Ethan Armstrong (No. 36) have 100 tackles combined, nearly 40 percent of the Badgers’ total tackles on the season. Taylor leads the team with 40 tackles, but Borland really shined against UTEP. He had twelve total tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks. Wisconsin will blitz with him and occasionally drop him down on the line to serve as a pure pass rusher. Defensive end David Gilbert (No. 11) is the best of the Badgers up front. Overall, Wisconsin comes pretty hard off the line and was flagged for offsides a few times meaning Taylor Martinez might look to the hard count at times on Saturday.
The question with Wisconsin is on the back end. The Badgers rank 10th in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and they don’t disguise coverages particularly well. Martinez has made some good checks early this season and being able to get a good pre-snap read will be a valuable advantage in this game. Nebraska ran a lot of two-tight formations against Idaho State, which could also be a key on Saturday. When you’re talking about dealing with Wisconsin’s linebackers Nebraska seems equally capable of keeping two tight ends in the game to help block or spreading the Badgers out and forcing those guys to either cover a wide receiver or get off the field.
When Nebraska has the ball, it’s going to be strength-on-strength and should be a pretty fascinating match-up. If the Huskers are able to move the ball early, this could end up around the two touchdown margin the wiseguys in Vegas are predicting. If Wisconsin’s offense continues to find its footing, however, things could be much closer. The one things the Badgers defense hasn’t had much of this season is help from its offense.